MACHIAS – The woman from Whiting, a mother of four, seized her chance Thursday morning to question the three men who want to be sheriff in Washington County.
She wanted to talk about trust.
“The sheriff is a role model, and I want my children to see truth and honesty in the sheriff,” she said.
“I’m sitting out on the fray, so how can we know we will get a truthful sheriff?”
The woman was one of 45 people who turned out at an “Eggs and Issues” breakfast meeting sponsored by the Machias Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.
In front of her and the others were the three candidates, Democrat George Bunker of Baileyville, Republican Rodney Merritt of East Machias and independent Donnie Smith of Lubec.
It wasn’t supposed to be a debate, but it ended up sounding like one.
For nearly 90 minutes the candidates talked about their pasts, as well as the present state of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department, and future possibilities for it.
Although one other attendee introduced herself as a mother with her own worries about raising her children safely, most in the crowd are already familiar with the inner workings – and the politics – of the sheriff’s office.
A fair number of current deputies and retired Maine State Troopers, as well as two of the current Washington County commissioners, made up an “insider’s audience.” They came both to support their candidates and see how the other candidates would answer.
The candidates are striving to reach beyond their confirmed supporters to the county’s ordinary voters. They know that taxpayers may not realize how much responding to issues of children’s safety, substance abuse and domestic violence form the day-to-day details of the sheriff’s agency.
Bunker, a former deputy and former state legislator, and Smith, a sergeant within the department, had already aired their views on shaping up the office, because they had taken part in a locally televised debate last week in Lubec.
The appearance of Merritt, a corporal in the department, put the three candidates in the same room for the first time this campaign.
Merritt talked about his lifelong dream of working in law enforcement and his 17 years as a Washington County deputy.
He also confirmed that he once worked for the Maine State Police, a career step that he does not mention in his campaign materials.
Questioned on that publicly for the first time, Merritt said he did not complete his probationary period as a state trooper, but not for “all kinds of accusations and the wild rumors” going around, he said.
He left after four months because “I had one thing on my mind, getting back to Washington County,” where he had grown up in Addison.
Looking to the future, Bunker noted that, “The problems within the department are so vast … This sheriff’s department is in dire need of change, and change has to come from outside the department.”
Smith said the agency needed to work more cooperatively with other agencies, such as the Maine State Police, Maine Drug Enforcement and the Maine Warden Service.
Merritt said that was already happening, and gave some recent examples.
Smith said a community advisory board needs to be in place that could respond to the needs and wishes of county residents.
The three also talked numbers.
Bunker pointed out that in the last 10 years, the agency has doubled its number of patrol deputies to six, yet handled fewer than 150 serious criminal complaints in 2005, the kind that are reported to federal authorities. That is less than half the number that a lesser-staff department managed 10 years ago, he said.
Smith said that most patrol deputies handle between 300 and 400 general complaints a year, although in 2005, three of them combined to handle just 71 complaints.
Merritt said that such figures can present a “deception.”
“I’m not one to load up on statistics,” he said. “I don’t put my school encounters down on paper.”
All agreed that the county’s geography presents huge challenges for law enforcement, even with the current call-sharing system with the Maine State Police in place.
“You go to Danforth in a cruiser,” Smith said, “and it’s like the ice cream truck showing up.”
The candidates will meet again in a debate-format at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 19, at the University of Maine at Machias.